HC Deb 27 October 1986 vol 103 cc21-4 3.31 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on the effects on the supply and fitting of artificial limbs of the "lock-out" at J E Hanger and Company Ltd.

The Minister for Social Security (Mr. John Major)

The House will know that 300 workers usually engaged in the manufacture and repair of artificial limbs at J E Hanger works at. Roehampton have been in dispute with their management since 15 September. The limbs manufactured at Roehampton are for fitting at Department of Health and Social Security artificial limb and appliance centres. The dispute is at present confined to bench hands at the Hanger Roehampton factory, and has not spread elsewhere.

The Government's concern throughout the dispute has been to safeguard the welfare of patients. We have sought to make arrangements to ensure that no amputee is left immobile. As a result, the effect of this dispute on patients thus far has been small — although I am acutely conscious of the difficulties caused to a small number of individuals.

There are some 3,000 prosthetic appointments each week at artificial limb and appliance centres: by the end of last week some 58 patient had had their appointments postponed because their limbs could not be supplied in time. In these cases we are arranging with the company for the limbs to be supplied urgently and are making fresh appointments for the patients as soon as possible. In order to avoid any wider disruption to the service, arrangements are being made, where necessary, for the work to be carried out elsewhere. We are taking particular care in the case of primary patients, who have recently undergone their amputations.

In view of the great importance of patient care, I have asked for a report each day on the emerging situation during this dispute. However, I must stress that the great bulk of the artificial limb and appliance service is not affected by the dispute, and I am particularly keen that patients who need attention should not hesitate to contact their local centre in the usual way.

I must emphasise that the Government are not a party to this dispute. It is a dispute between management and a part of its work force; it is a matter for negotiation between them. Both sides are aware that the services of ACAS remain available, and I believe that both sides should be prepared to involve ACAS forthwith.

Mr. Dobson

In view of the quite unsatisfactory statement by the Minister, I should like to ask again why the Government have not taken more vigorous action to protect the interests of National Health Service patients who rely on the work carried out by J E Hanger. Why have I not yet received a reply to my letter of 8 October to the Secretary of State? The Minister said that he had asked for daily reports. When did he start to do that? Will he stop saying that this matter does not affect patients? The centre used to produce 100 new or adjusted limbs per day, and the dispute has been going on since 16 September. The DHSS press office and the Minister have acknowledged that more than 50 people have been affected, but Baroness Trumpington said as recently as 17 October in the other place: We do not envisage any amputee being left immobile as a result of the J. E. Hanger dispute."— [Official Report, House of Lords, 17 October 1986, Vol. 480, c 1024.] Perhaps the Prime Minister, to whom a copy of my letter was sent, could have drawn the attention of the Baroness and of the Minister to the plight of one of my constituents, Mr. Rob Dickson, who has only one leg. He is suffering from bleeding and soreness and extreme discomfort in the stump of his missing leg. He flaked out and had to be taken to the Royal Free hospital to be resuscitated. Mr. Dickson is still in hospital.

Does the Minister not accept that one of the reasons for this industrial dispute is that the new owners, unlike the previous ones, are interested only in profits? I should tell the Minister that the work force has been sacked. The new owners are responding to the Government's encouragement of macho Murdoch style management by sacking staff to gain financial and industrial advantages.

Will the Minister tell us whether the offer that this dedicated work force of 300 skilled staff received last week from the management was reasonable? Does he support it? Is it right that the management offered to take hack only 80 workers and to give miserly compensation of about £2,000 to the rest, some of whom had worked for the company for 40 years? Does the Minister accept that that offer was rejected by the work force by 238 votes to two? Does he accept that the DHSS and Employment Ministers are not doing what they ought to do in a proper effort to resolve this dispute? Their activities are characterised by the attitude of Pontius Pilate. They should do their job properly and protect the interests of people who are suffering because they are not able to get the limbs to which they are entitled.

Mr. Major

If there is a top, it is clear that the hon. Gentleman has gone well over it yet again.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the dispute and about the offer to the work force. These are matters for the management and staff, and it would not be helpful, nor would it be in the interests of finding a solution, if I were to express views on them, and however pressed I have no intention of doing so. The hon. Gentleman also spoke about vigorous action. In my statement I set out clearly the parameters of the action.

The hon. Gentleman might have said that of the 14,300 attendances each month over the period of this dispute, thus far I am aware of only 58 postponed appointments. I am acutely aware of the difficulties caused to those 58 people, and in that context I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) in whose constituency Roehampton is located. He has made repeated representations to me about this dispute and has voiced his anxiety about patient care.

We have identified, and are identifying, patients whose appointments have been delayed. We are arranging fresh appointments for them and, as I said in my statemen t, we are seeking to arrange for the alternative manufacture of limbs where that is necessary. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) must permit me to answer the questions that he asked, and be prepared to listen to the answers. Daily reports have been made available to the Department since the middle or last week, and will continue to be made available for some considerable time, so that we may monitor the effect of this dispute.

I was sorry to hear of the particular difficulties faced by the hon. Gentleman's constituent, Mr. Dickson, and if the hon. Gentleman will be kind enough to give me details I shall endeavour to have the matter examined without any further delay.

It is our wish to see this dispute ended but, in our judgment, it is not likely to be ended by injudicious interference by Ministers. Nevertheless, the services of ACAS are available to both participants.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

The House will appreciate the position of my hon. Friend the Minister and will be grateful for the report that he has given us. He said that in certain cases other suppliers were being used. Will he assure us that he will use other suppliers in any circumstances where this will help to solve the problems that the dispute has precipitated?

Mr. Major

My prime concern is patient care. I can assure my hon. Friend that wherever that is possible it will be done.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

The Minister says that he is not responsible and so will not interfere in the dispute caused by the decision of Hanger to pay off these men. He, together with other Ministers, is responsible for the supply of legs, so he has responsibility for awarding contracts. The Minister will know that there are difficulties with contracts, not only in this area, but in Britain generally. He cannot say that he is not responsible. He should take a far greater interest in ensuring that the dispute is resolved.

Mr. Major

I draw a clear distinction between not being responsible for settling the dispute, which is between management and the work force, and the responsibility, which I acknowledge, of seeking to ensure an adequate supply of limbs to those in need. In my statement and answers to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) I set out clearly the action that we are taking to ensure the supply of limbs. We shall continue to take that action, for we share the hon. Gentlemens' concern about it.

Mr. John Powley (Norwich, South)

Does my hon. Friend agree that any industrial action of this nature is regrettable, particularly considering the harm and possible danger to those who are in receipt of artificial limbs? Does he agree that both parties should make greater efforts to resolve their differences, for the sake of those whom they serve?

Mr. Major

My hon. Friend makes his points with great clarity. My unwillingness to become involved in the dispute is matched by my unwillingness to cast blame in either direction. I share my hon. Friend's concern that the people of primary importance are those who are waiting for artificial limbs.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Does the Minister accept that many hon. Members believe that the Government are responsible for the incidents at Roehampton, where management has sacked summarily a work force of 300? Is it not a fact that during the past seven years this Administration have exchanged consultation and conciliation in industrial relations for confrontation and submission? The Government are responsible for what is happening.

Mr. Major

The hon. Gentleman's remarks are supremely irrelevant, even by his high standards of irrelevance. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would blame the Government if it rained. It is not the Government's fault that the dispute has occurred and I refuse to accept the blame for it.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

I thank my hon. Friend for his statement, but is it not the case that the Government are greatly involved, in that National Health Service patients, and the NHS itself, are important customers of this company? Does my hon. Friend remember the remarks made by my hon. and noble Friend in another place 10 days ago, when she said that the Government had, indeed, inquired of Hanger management orally and in writing what action is being taken to maintain supply. My noble Friend told another place on that occasion: The company has refused to reply … to either approach."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 October 1986; Vol. 480, c. 1023.] Will my hon. Friend redouble his efforts to bring about a sensible solution to the problem?

Mr. Major

My hon. Friend has correctly stated the remarks of our noble Friend in another place. I take to heart the injunction that he has laid on us and I will seek to do that.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

On the question of delays in helping limbless people, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) spoke, is the Minister aware that there is now urgent need for a definitive statement on the Government's response to the recommendations of the McColl report on artificial limb and appliance services?

This dispute, which some regard as not wholly unrelated to delays in dealing with the McColl recommendations, makes the need for a definitive statement all the more urgent. My hon. Friend raised a very distressing case. Is the Minister aware that I have a letter from a woman—a limbless young mother who has visited an artificial limb and appliance centre 23 times this year alone—which has been given to me by the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation and which I am authorised to pass to the Minister? Will he give it immediate attention and say now when and how the Government will act?

Mr. Major

The right hon. Gentleman touches on an exceedingly important point when he refers to the McColl report. I am urgently studying its recommendations, together with the comments made on it, not least by the Royal College of Physicians in its report on physical disability. I shall endeavour to produce conclusions and proposals for action as soon as possible and shall naturally keep the House informed as soon as conclusions are reached.

On the right hon. Gentleman's second point, I shall certainly examine the case without delay.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take the hon. Gentleman's point of order later.